Our Backstage Experts are acting teachers, coaches, casting directors, actors themselves, and everything in between. Having been in the industry for decades, they’ve seen plenty of auditions and know what songs really need to be retired. We knew they’d be the perfect group to ask the following question:
What is one audition song you NEVER want to hear again?
Here are answers from eight industry professionals!
(And if you missed the last installment of this column, check out “16 Ways to Fail as an Actor” and see how to get your acting questions answered at the bottom of this article!)
Paul Barry, L.A.-based Australian acting teacher
In a decade as a professional reader for music theater I can honestly say that I’ve rarely heard, “I never want to hear that song again.” Most often I heard, “Why did they choose that song? It didn’t do them justice at all.”
However, I have seen many successful performers subverting what was expected of them in song choice—or even pieces that at first seemed wrong for their personality—but they nailed them. The common denominator to me seemed to be that pieces chosen with some deep personal resonance to the singer, appropriate to the style (with technical proficiency), and done from the heart always hit the mark.
But since we’re being asked to select just one song to avoid—unless you come up with the most incredibly unique rendition the world has ever seen (and it’s possible)—I’d suggest avoiding “I Dreamed a Dream” from “Les Misérables. Allow the Susan Boyle, Anne Hathaway, and “Glee” cast versions to stop circulating before subjecting any selection panel to that one again for a while.
Andrew Byrne, NYC-based voice teacher
The most important distinction when it comes to “overdone” material is who is making decisions in that particular audition. If you’re going in for a casting director/associate, they often sit in auditions for many hours each week. Therefore, you may want to avoid pieces that they have heard too frequently. However, if you’re auditioning for a creative team, they are usually in auditions much less often, and probably have no idea (or don’t care) if a piece is sung a lot.
Therefore, I personally don’t feel that any songs are strictly taboo. However, if you’re going in for casting and you want to avoid overused material, I’d watch out for any hit song from a major movie musical (such as “Let It Go” from “Frozen”) and any song that both men and women sing (like “If I Loved You” from “Carousel”). There also tends to be a lot of overlap in contemporary up-tempo songs and comedy songs; these categories are requested a lot and only certain songs will work in auditions. To make better choices, work with a rep coach or click here for my song lists.
Mary Anna Dennard, founder of College Audition Coach
I would have to warn girls that “Defying Gravity,” “Astonishing,” “Gimme Gimme,” “Vanilla Ice Cream,” and “The Girl in 14G” are in the danger zone and should be avoided, no matter how well you sing them. Of course, there are certain specific songs that irritate individual college auditors more than others. It’s kind of a personal thing. However, if colleges have a real aversion to certain songs or if there are certain composers (Jason Robert Brown, Stephen Sondheim) they want students to avoid, they will post a “Do Not Sing” list on their website.
Cathryn Hartt, founder of Hartt and Soul Studio
Anything from “Frozen”! However, if you bring your own light to a song, you can sing me “Happy Birthday” and I will love you. Work your magic! But casting folks will like you a whole lot better if you surprise them with a song or a they don’t know
Brian O’Neil, “Acting as a Business” author and NYU and Julliard faculty
My least favorite is Rizzo’s ballad from “Grease,” “There Are Worse Things I Could Do.” There’s something about the melody that sounds like several of the notes were composed are “under the radar,” meaning it sounds flat. “There are worse things I could do, than go with a boy or two.” Listen to the “do” and the “two” on the recording. Pitch perfect Julie Andrews in her prime would have sounded flat singing this song. So when it comes to musical theater auditions, I don’t think there's anything worse you could do.
Jessica Rofé, founder and artistic director of A Class Act NY
Gosh, there are so many, but for little kids we are quite over hearing “Maybe” and “Tomorrow” from “Annie” and “Castle On A Cloud” from “Les Misérables.”
Denise Simon, NYC-based acting coach
Since I work with many young performers I will weigh in on what young people sing. Since you ask what is the one song that is played out, I would have to go with “Tomorrow” from “Annie.” It is a wonderful song for belters, but frankly, belting is not all that interesting. There are many other songs which have great range and where you can make strong acting choices. I don’t have a problem with songs that are sung a lot—especially if they are sung well—but I’m not so sure I’m interested in hearing that song again. Consult with your acting or voice coach to find new songs that work with your strengths and gifts.
Duncan Stewart, CSA, casting director, and owner/partner of Stewart/Whitley in NYC
I think one has to be cautious about generating songs that fall into the “don’t sing these at an audition” or “I never want to hear this again” lists, for who can entirely predict what you, the actor, is going do to with that old chestnut or tricky Sondheim piece in the room? A while ago, someone came in for me to sing “Anthem” from “Chess.” Yes, an old (one might say overdone) gem that had some eyes rolling on the panel, but—and here's the kicker—the actor sang/acted the song so damn brilliantly that it practically erased all pre-conceived notions of the song and those who had sung it in the past. Aside from having magnificent vocal chops, this actor brought his own point of view into the room and blew us away with his take on the material. Instant callback. So, who am I to say, “Don’t ever bring ‘Anthem’ into the audition room”?
However, if you choose to sing a song that others might perceive as being overdone, make sure you own it 100 percent, and in doing so, you truly do equal or trump all those Fosters, Chenoweths, Butzs and Jordans out there!
Having said all of the above, (and finally answering the question at hand), I find myself overhearing “Gimme Gimme” from “Thoroughly Modern Millie” in the audition room. Why? Aside, from the fact that it’s overdone and it’s nearly impossible to eradicate Sutton Foster’s sublime original take on this, it’s also a question of (good) taste that, in my opinion, I find a lot of actors lack when singing this song.
In picking a suitable cut, many women choose to start at “I don’t care if he’s a nobody” and then continue on through the ending. “Gimme Gimme,” while in its entirety is a beautifully constructed number, often, in the audition room, turns into one loud (screamed?) “belt number.” All subtlety of the character’s discovery (marveling/relishing in newfound love) is lost. How I wish someone (even within the audition cut) could come in and start with a tasteful and reigned in beginning and keep the belt notes in the back pocket for the last moments of the song....
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The views expressed in this article are solely that of the individual(s) providing them,
and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Backstage or its staff.